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Hume Shifts

the Burden of Proof

After all, it was over 250 years ago that Hume observed that "the rules of
morality are not the conclusion of our reason." Yet Hume's claim has not
sufficed to deter most modern rationalists from continuing to believe --
curiously enough often quoting Hume in their support -- that something not
derived from reason must be either nonsense or a matter for arbitrary
preference, and, accordingly, to continue to demand rational justifications.
F.A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit, The Errors of Socialism [University of Chicago
Press, 1988, 1991, p.66]
Every one knows that judicious matter and charms of style have rendered
Hume's history [of England] the manual of every student. I remember well
the enthusiasm with which I devoured it when young, and the length of time,
the research and reflection which were necessary to eradicate the poison it
had instilled into my mind. It was unfortunate that he first took up the history
of the Stuarts, became their apologist, and advocated all their enormities...
Although all this is known, he still continues to be put into the hands of all our
young people, and to infect them with the poison of his own principles of
government. It is this book which has undermined the free principles of the
English government, has persuaded readers of all classes that these were
usurpations on the legitimate and salutary rights of the crown, and has
spread universal toryism over the land.
Thomas Jefferson, "To Colonel William Duane," August 12, 1810, The Life
and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, edited and with an Introduction
by Adrienne Koch and William Pedan [The Modern Library, Random House,
1944, 1972, 1993, p.555, boldface added]

At the beginning of his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, David
Hume, having argued that all ideas come from antecedent impressions,
describes a test of his theory:
Those who would assert that this position is not universally true nor without
exception, have only one, and that an easy method of refuting it; by
producing that idea, which, in their opinion, is not derived from this source. It
will then be incumbent on us, if we would maintain our doctrine, to produce
the impression, or lively perception, which corresponds to it. [Shelby-Bigge
edition, Oxford, 1902, 1972, pp. 19-20]
Here the challenge and the burden of proof is clear enough: If we produce an
idea that we contend is not derived from an original impression, or lively
perception, then it is Hume's business to produce that impression or admit
that his theory, his empiricism, is not correct.
The difficulty with this test for Hume is that he himself discovers many ideas
which evidently have not been derived from an original impression. Thus,
later in the same Enquiry, we find Hume saying:
There are no ideas, which occur in metaphysics, more obscure and uncertain,
than those of power, force, energy or necessary connection.... [pp.61-62]
When we look about us towards external objects, and consider the operation
of causes, we are never able, in a single instance, to discover any power or
necessary connection; any quality, which binds the effect to the cause, and
renders the one an infallible consequence of the other.... Consequently, there
is not, in any single, particular instance of cause and effect, any thing which
can suggest the idea of power or necessary connection. [p. 63]
...but the power or force, which actuates the whole machine [the universe], is
entirely concealed from us, and never discovers itself in any of the sensible
qualities of body.... It is impossible, therefore, that the idea of power can be
derived from the contemplation of bodies, in single instances of their
operation; because no bodies ever discover any power, which can be the
original of this idea. [pp. 63-64]
Now, in terms of Hume's own challenge, one might say that he has
discovered several ideas that refute his empiricism. However, he has already
protected himself against such refutation: Having proposed his test, Hume
almost immediately took it back and shifted the burden of proof:
When we entertain, therefore, any suspicion that a philosophical term is
employed without any meaning or idea (as is but too frequent), we need to
enquire, from what impression is that supposed idea derived? And if it be
impossible to assign any, this will serve to confirm our suspicion. [p. 22]
Now if we produce an idea, like power or necessary connection, that we
maintain is not derived from an antecedent impression, it is not incumbent
upon Hume to produce the impression or abandon his empiricism. Instead,
Hume can say this means that our idea is "without any meaning or idea." This
is indeed what Hume says:
And as we can have no idea of any thing which never appeared to our
outward sense or inward sentiment, the necessary conclusion seems to be
that we have no idea of connection or power at all, and that these words are
absolutely without any meaning, when employed either in philosophical
reasonings or common life. [p. 74, boldface added]
This is the beginning of an evil tradition in the history of philosophy to dismiss
many perfectly sensible terms in philosophy and ordinary language as
"meaningless" according to some new philosophical theory of meaning.
Intentionally or not, Hume's shifting of the burden of proof serves to protect
his theory from refutation, according to the obvious avenue of refutation that
he had just recognized himself. Such a theory simply begs the question, and it
is hard to imagine that an acute thinker like Hume would fail to recognize
that. In any case, having incautiously offered the terms of his test, he quickly
enough prepared the way for his rejection of inconvenient concepts.
Even so, Hume doesn't quite dismiss the ideas of "power, force,
energy or necessary connection" as "without any meaning or idea." He better
not; for power, force, and energy especially are not "obscure and uncertain"
concepts from metaphysics: They all have clear and useful definitions
in physics. "Force" had already been defined by Isaac Newton himself in the
famous equation, F=ma -- force equals mass times acceleration. But Hume
can never recover from his presuppositions that because there is no
impression, we cannot know that there is anything there in nature. So, the
best that Hume can do is to attribute our belief in power, force, energy, and
necessary connection to the psychological conditioning brought about by the
"custom" or "habit" of experiencing the constant conjunction of causes with
This connexion, therefore, which we feel in the mind, this customary
transition of the imagination from one object to its ususal attendant, is the
sentiment or impression from which we form the idea of power or necessary
connection. Nothing farther is in the case. [p. 75]
Although Hume may think that he has formally met his challenge to account
for the ideas of power and necessary connection, his answer has the
drawback of no longer being about the world, but just about the operations of
the mind. If we reject this answer as being irrelevant to knowledge,
committing a material fallacy of relevance, and we hold him to a ground of
knowledge in objects, then he can only say that "we have no idea of
connexion or power at all, and that these words are absolutely without any
The subjective approach through psychological "habit" has several important
1. Only concepts that relate to the objects of experience, albeit without
corresponding to "impressions" themselves, can be saved. Thus,
although causality, force, and the like can be saved for physics, moral
concepts like free will, or religious concepts like God or the soul, cannot
be saved. They will truly be for Hume "without any meaning or idea."
However, since Hume himself views the convictions of custom and habit
as perhaps wise provisions of Nature against the imperfections and
uncertainties of our reason, there is in principle no reason why Nature
should not also have provided us with convictions that do not
relate directly to perceptual objects in the manner identified by Hume.
If Hume is offering up a description of human nature, he obviously
overlooks the circumstance that human nature in all times and places
has tended to turn to religious expression. Hume actually edits "human
nature" according to his own Scottish and Epicurean preferences. Kant,
who also limits theoretical knowledge to the world of experience,
nevertheless allows "postulates of practical reason" for moral or
religious issues that do not relate directly to scientific knowledge.
2. The certainty that Hume attributes to the necessary connection of
causality and the laws of nature has been a matter of confusion ever
since. Since our own psychological certainty obviously has nothing to do
with any necessity among the objects of nature, it is easy to infer that
Hume did not believe there was any certainty. It should then be
surprising to find how easily Hume rules out, not just miracles, but also
free will and even chance just because all would involve violations of
causality, as he understands it. This goes back to the kind of Skeptic
that Hume is, not a Pyrrhonian, who suspends all judgment because
of lack of objective knowledge, but an Academic Skeptic, who
continues making the reasonable judgments of ordinary life, regardless
of lack of objective knowledge -- these differences were already sorted
out in Hellenistic philosophy. Hume's subjective certainty as a Skeptic is
thus just as strong as the certainty of those who might believe in
objective necessity among objects: Indeed, Hume's certainty often
seems greater; for it does not follow from a belief in necessity among
objects that there should be certainty in beliefs about them, and anyone
who believes in necessity among objects can easily be more sceptical
than Hume, in the ordinary sense, about what those necessities are.
There are thus two false inferences to guard against: (1) that Hume
was "uncertain" about his beliefs because he knew that experience
could not justify them; and (2) that we should deny necessity among
objects just because we are uncertain about our beliefs. Hume's own
certainty, indeed, rises to the level of dogmatism, disparaging, not just
the "superstition" of Roman Catholicism, but even attacking geometry,
along with metaphysics, for the problems of infinite divisibility. [Note]
3. Hume's attack on geometry is instructive:
No priestly dogmas, invented on purpose to tame and subdue the
rebellious reason of mankind, ever shocked common sense more
than the doctrine of the infinite divisibility of extension, with its
consequences; as they are pompously displayed by all
geometricians and metaphysicians, with a kind of triumph and
exultation. [p. 156]
Although Hume has already said, "Though there never were a circle or
triangle in nature, the truths demonstrated by Euclid would for ever
retain their certainty and evidence" [p. 25], he must turn against
geometry where it conflicts with his empiricism: Quantities too small to
be seen correspond to no "impression" and are thus "without any
meaning or idea." The division of such quantities into even smaller
quantities is that much the worse. Unfortunately for Hume, his attack
here cannot just be on "geometricians and metaphysicians," it must also
be on physicists, for Newton's calculus of infinitesimal quantities is part
of the geometry of infinite divisibility. It might be argued, indeed, that
an infinitesimal is something that is the result of a finite division; but it
is also certainly something that is not a discernible quantity, which must
necessarily offend Hume's empiricism. "Too small to be detected, but
there" is not a formula for Empiricist mathematics. Perhaps Hume did
not notice, as Berkeley did, that his epistemological presuppositions
might put him on a collision course with a modern physics dependent
on many mathematical ideas that have "shocked common sense."
4. The attack on geometry is a clue to something larger: Hume's
empiricism, while ruling out various metaphysical entities (free will, the
soul, God, etc.), to the applause of his many admirers, also ruled out
many of the future developments of science, which few admirers this
side of deconstruction are likely to applaud:
Our senses inform us of the colour, weight, and consistence of
bread; but neither sense nor reason can ever inform us of those
qualities which fit it for the nourishment and support of a human
body. [p. 33]
These ultimate springs and principles [of events in nature] are
totally shut up from human curiosity and enquiry. Elasticity,
gravity, cohesion of parts, communication of motion by impulse;
these are probably the ultimate causes and principles which we
shall ever discover in nature. [p. 30]
The course of science in the 19th and 20th centuries would have
astonished Hume, as it certainly discredits the foundation of his
predictions for the future of human knowledge. That proteins, vitamins,
carbohydrates, minerals, etc. explain the basis of human nutrition, and
that electromagnetism and atomic, nuclear, and particle physics explain
much of the fundamental behavior of matter, are not just things that
escaped Hume's imagination -- they escaped everyone's imagination
until the discovery of them was effected -- but they are things that
occupy a cognitive space whose very existence Hume explicitly denied:
They do not correspond to "impressions" any more than God or the soul
do. By Hume's criterion they are "without any meaning or idea."
Thus, when Hume shifts the burden of proof to protect his empiricism, he
shuts off any possible understanding, not just of metaphysics and religion, but
of much of mathematics and science. That is a price some, like Wittgenstein
and Rorty, are still willing to pay: That mathematics and science really tell us
nothing about the world but are elaborate tricks we have devised that
unaccountably produce results that we want in practical matters. Such a
dismal aspiration can be found to have motivated few, if any, historic
scientists. As Roger Penrose says in a footnote to The Emperor's New Mind:
I have taken for granted that any 'serious' philosophical viewpoint should
contain at least a good measure of realism. It always surprises me when I
learn of apparently serious-minded thinkers, often physicists concerned with
the implications of quantum mechanics, who take the strongly subjective view
that there is, in actuality, no real world 'out there' at all! The fact that I take a
realistic line wherever possible is not meant to imply that I am unaware that
such subjective views are often seriously maintained -- only that I am unable
to make sense of them. [p. 299]
The desire to know that drove Galileo, Newton, or Einstein cannot be
addressed by a philosophical theory of knowledge that denies that any such
knowledge can be had. No one who thought that "knowledge" was simply a
"device for calculation" would bother to spend years in purely theoretical
research; nor would anyone bother to trouble themselves with all the difficulty
of mathematical study and scientific research if they believed the next step in
nihilistic theory, that scientific "knowledge" is an arbitrary construction of
power relationships. In that case, "knowledge" would tell us nothing either
about the world or about practical results but simply would embody the power
relationships that distribute goods according to the race, class, and gender
construction built into it.
While Hume does not go as far as much more recent theory, it is rarely
recognized, as it was by Kant, that he shut off much of science as well as
religion with his empiricism. Since many great defenders and devotees of
science in the 20th century, like the Logical Positivists, thought that Hume's
philosophy was very nearly sufficient for a proper philosophy of science, this
has been a very dangerous oversight. But this whole direction of error can be
forestalled just by noticing the trick at the very beginning: An "idea" without
an "impression" is not to be dismissed as "without any meaning" but is
actually counter-evidence against Hume's whole empiricism. Until Hume shifts
the burden of proof, his own work provides some of the best evidence against
empiricism, as Kant himself appreciated.

When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must
we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school
metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning
concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental
reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the
flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.
This famous passage, which ends the Enquiry Concerning Human
Understanding [op.cit. p.165], with its rather chilling call for book burning,
starkly exposes the kind of petard upon which Hume's own project is hoist;
for Hume's own books, including the Enquiry and the Treatise both, contain
no mathematics or experimental science. By his own criteria, they are thus to
be committed to the flames. To be sure, Hume thought that he was doing
empirical "experiments" in his book; but he was confused about this and has
never really been considered a scientistby anyone. No, he is a philosopher,
discussing the form and implications of an Empiricist theory of knowledge. He
therefore paints himself into the same corner as any philosopher advocating
scientism or positivism, that his own theory rules out the possibility or
meaning of his own theory. This would become an occupational hazzard in
some of his spiritual successors. The Logical Positivists could never admit the
absurdity of the doctrine of their school on the basis of the principles of that
very doctrine. The younger Wittgenstein did recognize that the Tractatus was
nonsense in terms of its own theory, but then the older Wittgenstein,
abandoning scientism, nevertheless did not admit that his later theory was
not ordinary language, which for him became normative, but was actually a
"private language," whose possibility he denied.
Hume and all these successors thus cannot escape an accusation that could
easily have been made by either Socrates or Kant: that they insensibly
practice metaphysical thinking and appeal to metaphysical principles even
when they do not think they are doing so and even while they try to argue
against the possibility of such things. As Plato said of Protagoras, they thus
manage to refute themselves.


Hume Shifts the Burden of Proof, Note;
Confusions about Hume in Antony Flew

I have found a very explicit demonstration of common confusions about
Hume in a recent book, There Is A God, by Antony Flew [HarperOne, 2007].
Flew himself was the product of the linguistic "Oxford Philosophy" of his
supervisor, the infamous (in my eyes) Gilbert Ryle. As it happens, Flew's book
recounts his transformation from a militant and notorious atheist to a deist (or
something -- he favorably references many theistic arguments, some of which
seem incompatible with deism, i.e. the doctrine of an impersonal God who
now leaves the world alone to follow the mechanical laws that God with
infinite prescience designed at the beginning); but we also get some
retrospective on the analytic tradition of philosophy he has always
represented, a tradition that purportedly reveres, and can certainly be
expected to understand, Hume. Yet Flew says:
Hume denied causation in the first Inquiry [sic -- should be "Enquiry"] and
claimed that all the external world really contains is constant conjunctions;
that is, events of this sort are regularly followed by events of that sort. We
notice these constant conjunctions and form strong habits associating the
ideas of this with the ideas of that. We see water boiling when it is heated
and associate the two. In thinking of real connections out there, however,
we mistakenly project our own internal psychological associations. Hume's
skepticism about cause and effect and his agnosticism about the external
world are of course jettisoned the moment he leaves his study. Indeed, Hume
jettisions all of his most radical skepticism even before he leaves his study.
There is, for instance, no trace of the thesis that causal connections and
necessity are nothing but false projections onto nature in the notorious
section "Of Miracles" in the first Inquiry. [p.58, boldface added]
Each of the expressions that I have quoted in boldface represents a
misunderstanding of Hume, something which must go back to Flew's failure to
appreciate the difference, cited by Hume himself, between a Pyrrhonian and
an Academic Skeptic. Thus, Hume never "denied causation" but simply argued
that it was not the result of any rational inferences based on instances of
perception. This meant that Hume never asserted that the "external world"
contained nothing but constant conjunctions. Such an assertion would
be no kind of Skepticism. Similarly, Hume would never assert that we
"mistakenly" project our internal psychological associations onto the world.
Indeed, Hume holds in mind a possible objective ground of the subjective
associations, namely Human Nature, to which the title of his first book makes
reference. He reflects in the Enquirythat it is probably better for our survival if
our knowledge of cause and effect is produced instinctively by association
than by some fallible chain of rational inferences from objective knowledge. It
is hard to imagine that Flew actually overlooked this whole dimension of
Hume's philosophy. But he did. Indeed, Flew writes as though in his youth he
accepted without qualification that Hume "denied causality," while later in the
perspective of mature reflection he realized that Hume "jettisoned" his
Skepticism in regard to various applications. However, Hume never denied
causality nor was he so careless as to inconistently allow causality in order to
deny miracles, etc. Flew's mature reflection still hasn't gotten it quite right.
No one who has noticed Hume's explicit assertion that none of his Skepticism
will have any effect on ordinary practice, or that after philosophical reflection
we still leave the room by the door and not by the window, would be
surprised, as Flew is, that even in his study Hume rejects chance, free will,
and miracles all because they violate causality. Flew's statement that "causal
connections and necessity are nothing but false projections" shows how badly
he, and probably most of his teachers and colleagues, construed Hume's
My practice, you say, refutes my doubts. But you mistake the purport of
my question. As an agent, I am quite satisfied in the point; but as a
philosopher, who has some share of curiosity, I will not say scepticism, I want
to learn the foundation of this inference [i.e. from cause to effect]. No
reading, no enquiry has yet been able to remove my difficulty, or give me
satisfaction in a manner of such importance. Can I do better than propose the
difficulty to the public, even though, perhaps, I have small hopes of obtaining
a solution? We shall at least, by this means, be sensible of our ignorance, if
we do not augment our knowledge. [An Enquiry Concerning Human
Understanding,op.cit., p.38, boldface added]
Nor need we fear that this [Sceptical] philosophy, while it endeavours to limit
our enquiries to common life, should ever undermine the reasonings of
common life, and carry its doubts so far as to destroy all action, as well as
speculation. Nature will always maintain her rights, and prevail in the
end over any abstract reasoning whatsoever.Though we should
conclude, for instance, as in the foregoing section, that, in all reasonings from
experience, there is a step taken by the mind which is not supported by any
argument or process of the understanding; there is no danger that these
reasonings, on which almost all knowledge depends, will ever be
affected by such a discovery. [ibid., p.41, boldface added]
Hume says, "There is, indeed, a more mitigated scepticism
or academical philosophy, which may be both durable and useful, and which
may, in part, be the result of this Pyrrhonism, or excessive scepticism, when
its undistinguished doubts are, in some measure, corrected by common sense
and reflection" [ibid., p.129, boldface added]. "The great subverter of
Pyrrhonism or the excessive principles of scepticism is action, and
employment, and the occupations of common life" [p.126]. Kant already
understood Hume better than Hume's own Analytic admirers. Hence Kant
famously says that Hume's critics "were ever taking for granted that which he
doubted, and demonstrating with zeal and often with impudence that which
he never thought of doubting..." [Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics,
p.259]. Kant's comment is often quoted, but it cannot be properly understood
if the confusions of Flew's tradition stand in the way. They exemplify Kant's

Key Distinctions for Value Theories,
and the Importance of Hume

Karman.y evdhikras te m phales.u kadcana /
m karmaphalahetur bhr m te sango 'stv akarman.i,
Set thy heart upon thy work, but never on its reward.
Work not for a reward; but never cease to do thy work.
The Bhagavad Gita, 2:47, Juan Mascar translation [Penguin Books, 1962,

Should we then, in the face of this criticism, reconcile ourselves to the view --
expressed countless times by so many: by some of the Sophists in Plato's
dialogues, by Hobbes and by many more recent authors -- that what is just is
what has been laid down as law by the legislator, and that there is no other
valid law apart from this? This view can of course be expressed with varying
degrees of consistency. The radical version says that whatever a sovereign or
ruling power has established is indeed just: Hitler's Nrnberg laws, and
Stalin's codes, and the American Constitution -- all are equally just. But this
compels us to accept the inconvenient conclusion that norms which contradict
each other may be equally legitimate and equally just. Advocates of this view,
therefore, usually try to circumvent the problem by arguing that the value-
laden concept of justice has no discernible meaning if it is taken to suggest a
supreme paradigm according to which we can measure and assess existing
legislation; if, on the other hand, 'justice' means nothing except positive law,
i.e., what is established in existing legislation, it is a misleading and useless
Leszek Ko akowski (1927-2009), "On Natural Law," Is God Happy?
Selected Essays [Basic Books, 2013, pp.242-243]

Some key distinctions can be used to characterize the nature of ethics. Most
fundamental is whether morality is a matter of rational knowledge or not. If it
is a matter of rational knowledge, then our doctrine would be objectivism,
which implies that morality is "out there," in the objects, and so
is independent of personal preferences or sentiments. If it is not a matter of
rational knowledge, then we could subscribe to subjectivism, that morality is
indeed a matter of personal preferences or sentiments, in the subject, i.e.
only in the mind or self. David Hume, is very properly often cited as the
classic representative of subjectivism, as in the ethics textbook Moral
Reasoning, by Victor Grassian, which I used to use in my ethics class. To
Hume, morality depends on our own sentiments or feelings, as there is no
matter of fact to determine moral truth [note].
Nor does this reasoning only prove, that morality consists not in any
relations, that are the objects of science; but if examin'd, will prove with
equal certainty, that it consists not in any matter of fact, which can be
discover'd by the understanding. This is the second part of our argument; and
if it can be made evident, we may conclude, that morality is not an object
of reason.... Take any action allow'd to be vicious: Wilful murder, for
instance. Examine it in all lights, and see if you can find that matter of fact, or
real existence, which you call vice. In which-ever way you take it, you find
only certain passions, motives, volitions and thoughts. There is no other
matter of fact in the case. The vice entirely escapes you, as long as you
consider the object. You never can find it, till you turn your reflexion into
your own breast, and find a sentiment of disapprobation, which arises in you,
towards this action. Here is a matter of fact; but 'tis the object of feeling, not
of reason. It lies in yourself, not in the object. So that when you pronounce
any action or character to be vicious, you mean nothing, but that from the
constitution of your nature you have a feeling or sentiment of blame from
the contemplation of it. [A Treatise of Human Nature, Shelby-Bigge edition,
Oxford, 1888, 1968, pp.468-469, original spelling, boldface added]
If morality is just a matter of feeling, and not a matter of rational knowledge,
then it is not really amenable to dispute. I have my feelings and you have
yours. It is not uncommon, however, for people to think that others disagree
with them on moral issues, not because of different feelings, but because of
a lack of feeling. We see this in an example given by Grassian, who recalls
responding at the time to a speech by Secretary of State Dean Rusk on the
war in Vietnam.
At that moment, it appeared to me that the Secretary of State simply did
not feel sufficient sympathy for the vast suffering of human beings who were
being sacrificed for unclear ideals of American security. As I listened to Rusk,
my predominant reaction was not to argue with him rationally, but in some
sense to shake him into an emotional realization of the enormity of human
suffering we as a nation were creating in Vietnam. [Moral Reasoning, Second
Edition, Prentice Hall, 1992, p.24]
We have no difficulty, however, imagining Rusk telling Grassian that he "did
not feel sufficient sympathy for the vast suffering of human beings" who lived
under Communism. There are no "unclear ideals of American security"
involved. After mass murderers like Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Kim Il Sung, and Ho
Chi Minh, the United States wanted to preserve South Vietnam and Cambodia
from Communism. We failed. As it happens, more people were murdered in
Indo-China after the Communist takeovers than had died in the wars there
that involved France and the United States [cf. Death by Government, by R.J.
Rummel, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1995]. Many
Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees live in the United States after fleeing the
terror of the new regimes. Richard Nixon's prediction that there would be a
"bloodbath" after a Communist victory, greeted with derision at the time, was
fully born out by events.
Basing a moral argument, with an appeal to feeling, on only part of a story of
suffering, has also occurred in relation to the invasion of Iraq by the United
States in 2003. Many antiwar protesters express outrage over the suffering to
the Iraqi people caused by the United States in military actions in Iraq. But
the story of an Iraqi exile in Los Angeles, Tamara Darweesh, was related by
the Los Angeles Times on 24 March 2003:
A few days ago, Darweesh went to the Third Street Promenade in Santa
Monica, where antiwar protesters were gathered. She asked to talk to them
about why it is important to topple Hussein. The protesters thanked her,
turned and walked away.
"I'm so disappointed with the left," said Darweesh, who considers herself
a liberal. "They are in complete denial because it doesn't fit into their equation
of the Mideast. But Saddam is an Arab leader who has killed more Arabs than
Israel ever has."
The antiwar protesters, she added, are "very condescending. They are
supposed to be for human rights, but the suffering of the Iraqi people just
doesn't exist for them. They deny us our stories."
For people whose argument is their sensitivity to suffering, the
political left thus puts itself in the position of protecting one of the nastiest
neo-Nazi dictators in recent history. As a matter of fact, examined elsewhere,
feeling cannot be morally commanded; and so the approach of insufficient
feeling for moral correctness is barking up the wrong tree.
If morality is not just a matter of feeling, but of rational knowledge, we then
must face the question of how that works. This is addressed in
detail elsewhere. Here it may be noted that Aristotelian arguments about
knowledge, which reduce reason to the self-evidence of first principles, leaves
us with certainties that seem fully as subjective as Hume's moral sentiments.
There is no more verification of self-evident propositions than there is of
those based on feeling. This problem is resolved when it is noted that Socratic
Method, as used by Socrates himself (not that described by Plato in
the Meno), examines the logical consequences of propositions in order to
expose contradictions. This will falsify some of our premises, in a manner first
appreciated by Karl Popper. Which premises is a matter of continuing inquiry.
This does not, to be sure, verify with certainty any remaining premises, but it
does give us something to do, which subjectivism and self-evidence do not.
A common misconception in ethics is that another
distinction, absolutism and relativism, means or amounts to the same thing as
objectivism and subjectivism, and that any absolutist or objectivist view of
ethics is necessarily heteronomous (see definitions in chart below). Likewise
with relativism, subjectivism, and autonomy. The "Pirsig" of the chart is
Robert Pirsig in the popular philosophizing novel Zen and the Art of
Motorcycle Maintenance. Grassian and Pirsig, although no more than a
popular novelist, are taken to represent views that are very characteristic of
current academic philosophy. (A further version of this chart, below, proceeds
to better known recent philosophers.)

It is easily assumed that autonomy implies subjectivism and relativism. This is
especially deceptive when dealing with Hume, who is a subjectivist and is thus
liable to be presented (as in Grassian's Moral Reasoning, and elsewhere) as a
relativist. But Hume's theory of knowledge allows him to believe things he
cannot rationally know (or prove); so while his theory is subjectivist, his
beliefs are in fact absolutist. That was also the case with the issue he is the
most famous for -- causality: He had no doubt that everything that happened
had a cause, he just didn't believe that this could be proven or
otherwise rationally motivated. Most important for our purposes is
the Socratic differentiation of absolutism. Socratic Ignorance means that
ethical values are real, objective, and absolute but that the human condition
is to be ignorant of them. This enables us to distinguish Socratic
Absolutism, where values are absolute but unknown, from Dogmatic
Absolutism, where absolute values are claimed to be already
known. Platonic Recollection is Plato's theory that knowledge is possible but
that it comes from within and is our memory of another world, a place of
perfect goodness, justice, and beauty (the "World of Being"). This is the
classic combination of autonomy with objectivism, although, of course, it
is not the only way that autonomy can be combined with objectivism.
Whether Hume was a heteronomist or autonomist is a good question. After a
fashion he was both: he explains the occurrence of morality by reference to
the customs of society as those develop over time, just as he explains
causality itself on the basis of habit and custom. That sounds very
heteronomous. However, as with causality again, he is aware that morality is
notproven or rationally justified by his explanation. Indeed, it cannot be:
Hume is also famous for noting that a proposition with an "ought" (assertions
of value) cannot be logically derived from propositions merely with an "is"
(assertions of fact):
I cannot forbear adding to these reasonings an observation, which may,
perhaps, be found of some importance. In every system of morality, which I
have hitherto met with, I have always remark'd, that the author proceeds for
some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a
God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I
am surpriz'd to find, that instead of the usual copulations of
propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected
with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however,
of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some
new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it shou'd be observ'd and
explain'd; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what
seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a
deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as
authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend
it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention wou'd subvert
all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice
and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceiv'd
by reason. [op.cit., pp.469-470, original spelling, boldface added]
And so the assertions of morality cannot be logically derived from factual
assertions about social or historical habit and custom. The force, certainty,
and actual moral nature of morality is a residue that reference to society
cannot account for. Since that residue is found in our own moral sentiments,
this is something left to autonomy. While Hume's distinction between "is" and
"ought" is often used as an argument that moral statements are baseless or
meaningless, this was not what Hume had in mind. Instead, we must take
him as arguing for what now would be called the "axiomatic independence" of
ethics, something that would have already been comprehensible to Aristotle,
who expected that each area of knowledge possessed its own first principles.
It seems like many recent philosophers neither know their Aristotle nor
understand their Hume.
Hume is a skeptic (which in philosophy means believing that knowledge is
impossible) but of a certain kind. "Pyrrhonian" skepticism, named after Pyrrho
of Elis (365-275 BC), is that because knowledge is impossible, we should
practice suspension (epoch) of judgment on all things. On the other hand,
this was later modified when the scholars in Plato's Academy went through a
phase of skepticism. Carneades of Cyrene (d. 129 BC), a Scholarch
(president) of the Academy, is particularly associated with this movement of
"Academic" skepticism. The Academic skeptics ultimately said that although
there may be no certain knowledge, there is reasonable belief, and this is
necessary for practical judgments in life. That is the term that Hume uses, as
he says, "The great subverter of Pyrrhonism or the excessive principles of
scepticism is action, and employment, and the occupations of common life"
[Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding p. 126], and "There is, indeed, a
more mitigated scepticism or academical philosophy, which may be both
durable and useful, and which may, in part, be the result of this Pyrrhonism,
or excessive scepticism, when its undistinguished doubts are, in some
measure, corrected by common sense and reflection" [p. 129]. Kant
understood that Hume was in no doubt of the quid facti (the matter of fact,
the existence) of causality or morality but that his skepticism merely consisted
in his inability to account for the quid juris, the foundational justification of
them. The failure to find the quid juris cast no doubt whatsoever on
the quid facti. Hence Kant famously says that Hume's critics "were ever taking
for granted that which he doubted, and demonstrating with zeal and often
with impudence that which he never thought of doubting..." [Prolegomena to
Any Future Metaphysics p. 259, Lewis White Beck translation, Library of the
Liberal Arts, 1950, p.6].
To think that Hume did not believe in the principles of causality and morality
is to confuse the content of knowledge with its object, or de
dicto ("concerning what is said") properties withde re ("concerning the thing")
properties. Observing that moral claims are made in historically contingent,
fallible, and corrigible ("correctable") propositions, some infer that
the objects of those propositions share in the same historical contingency.
There is no force to that inference whatsoever, since it can only be made by
confusing dictum with res and applying predicates of the former to the latter.
Could that inference be made, it would simply erase the entire significance of
moral discourse: no moral imperative (an "ought"), as Hume himself noted,
can be derived from the contingent fact of something being said at some
moment in history (an "is"). The idea that the description of practice, as
the natural history of what we actually do, is sufficient for moral theory, which
is what many philosophers today wish to do with Hume, effects a grotesque
reductionism of people's sense that they ought to do certain things into the
bare, retrospective indicative that they have. This would indeed be a pure
Pyrrhonian suspension of moral judgment, and it is not at all a reflection of
Hume's views.

Modern historicist and linguistic relativist theories (see Relativism about
Wittgenstein, Rorty, and Robert Solomon)
combine relativism with objectivism and heteronomy -- since history and
language are objective things that exist outside of us but vary in time, place,
and context. These connections are the worst of all possible worlds: putting
the moral agent at the mercy of external standards (language, society,
culture, etc.), even while these standards cannot
be rationally questioned. Hegel had thought that history was the concrete
exemplification of Reason and so could be rationally critiqued and changed,
but the real, external reality, as such nevertheless derived authority from its
presupposed rationality. Other versions of heteronomous relativism, even
those derived from Hegel, now do not need to take Hegel's notion, or any
notion, of reason very seriously. This can give near or complete totalitarian
force to mere social and cultural traditions.

The idea that actual, heteronomous institutions and practices thereby
possess moral force is "judicial positivism" -- what Leonard
Nelson called Rechtswissenschaft ohne Recht, "Jurisprudence without
Justice." This can be stated as the doctrine that:
1. "Justice is the practice of the courts," and
2. The only law is "positive law," i.e. actual statutory and case
The opposite of "positive law" is natural law, i.e. principles of natural justice,
including natural rights, that do not exist as statutes or case law but that
actually have moral force. Thus, Martin Luther King, quoting St. Augustine,
said, "An unjust law is no law at all" ["Letter from a Birmingham Jail,"
While the terminology of natural law goes back at least to St. Thomas Aquinas
(also quoted by King), the scholastic versions of it nevertheless emphasized
obedience to authority. This changed with John Locke, who justified the
English Glorious Revolution (1688) on the principle that unjust authority did
not merit obedience, and might rightfully be overthrown. This view was
simply taken over by Thomas Jefferson and the other theorists of the
American Revolution.
Later, in the debate over the Constitution, one problem was whether there
should be a Bill of Rights. The Federalists Alexander Hamilton and James
Madison argued that a Bill of Rights could produce misunderstandings:
1. People might say that we only have the particular rights listed in the
Bill; and
2. That we only have the rights because they are listed and so
positively granted.
When most of the States insisted on a Bill of Rights, and Madison was won
over by his friend Jefferson, he suggested the Ninth Amendment to prevent
such misunderstandings: "The enumeration in the Constitution of
certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others
retained by the people." Various sophistries have been offered to get
around the plain meaning, and the historical motivation, of this text, but it
clearly allows that rights exist which are not listed in the Constitution, and it
thus implies that such rights do not exist because they are granted by positive
Today, the most infamous self-professed judicial positivist is probably the
late Robert Bork, who famously stated that the Ninth Amendment was a "blot
of ink," i.e. a meaningless hieroglyph that could not be interpreted. In this, he
at least honestly admitted that his judicial philosophy denied the existence of
the very things the Ninth Amendment was talking about. Bork was not
confirmed for the Surpreme Court. Later, however, when Clarence Thomas
was nominated, he was actually attacked, before other things were found to
accuse him of, for not being a judicial positivist. Thomas's acknowledged
adherence to, and Bork's rejection of, natural law principles, however, are
both unusual. Most judges today (and most Constitutional case law) are
reflexive and unconscious positivists; and modern American political and
judicial attitudes are overtly hostile, as was Bork, to principled disobedience to
existing law, even law that is grotesquely unjust and, on any honest reading
of the Constitution, unconstitutional. A good example of this reflexive
positivism was President Clinton, who said, after the bombing of the Alfred P.
Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City:
When we got organized as a country and we wrote a fairly radical Constitution
with a radical Bill of Rights, giving [sic] a radical amount of individual
freedom to Americans, it was assumed that the Americans who had that
freedom would use it responsibly... that they would work for the common
good, as well as for the individual welfare... However, now there's a lot of
irresponsibility. And so a lot of people say there's too much freedom. When
personal freedom's being abused, you have to move to limit it. [boldface
The stigmata of positivism are all over this, with Clinton, a former professor of
Constitutional law (!), considering whether some of the freedom "given" to us
in the Bill of Rights should be taken back. To have politicians, and especially
such a man as Clinton, considering how others have been "irresponsible" and
should be deprived of their freedom is full of a particularly bitter but
tragicomic irony. The same positivist animus to natural law principles of
justice and freedom can be found in the modern rejection of the powers
of juries, and in recenttreatments of Jefferson.
While Bork is now infamous as a positivist, more prestigious Justices
articulated positivist priniciples long ago. An important and influential example
of that was Oliver Wendell Holmes(18411935), who said:
There is a tendency to think of judges as if they were independent
mouthpieces of the infinite, and not simply directors of a force that comes
from the source that gives them their authority. I think our court has fallen
into the error at times and it is that that I have aimed at when I have said
that the Common Law is not a brooding omnipresence in the sky and
that the U.S. is not subject to some mystic overlaw that it is bound to obey.
[quoted by Thomas Sowell, Intellectuals and Society, 2011, p.159; boldface
Noteworthy about this passage is the
apparent contempt and disparagement that Holmes has for natural justice,
natural law, and natural rights. He dismisses such conceptions as about
"the infinite," a "brooding omnipresence in the sky," or a "mystic
overlaw." But the United States, and every American, is indeed subject to
some "mystic overlaw that it is bound to obey," and that is, in the memorable
words of President Calvin Coolidge, "the eternal foundation of
Men do not make laws. They do but discover them. Laws must be justified by
something more than the will of the majority. They must rest on the eternal
foundation of righteousness. That state is most fortunate in its form of
government which has the aptest instruments for the discovery of law. [to the
Massachusetts State Senate, January 7, 1914; boldface added]
In the great words of Sherlock Holmes, "It's every man's business to see
justice done" ["The Crooked Man," Memories of Sherlock Holmes, 1892].
Justice Holmes directly contradicted this when one day Judge Learned
Hand (18721961) told him, in parting, "Do justice, sir, do justice." Holmes
actually stopped and called Justice Hand back so that he could object that
their job was to apply the law, not to "do justice": "That is not my job... It is
my job to apply the law." One wonders if Holmes would have enforced
the Fugitive Slave Laws without flinching. Ironically, Sir Arthur Conan
Doyle had named his immortal detective after the father of Justice Holmes,
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (18091894). But one might not know from
Justice Holmes's words that he was denying the philosophical basis of the
Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, as Coolidge and Hand
were affirming them.
We see the full meaning of the positivism of Justice Holmes in his statement
that law is "the articulate voice of some sovereign or quasi-sovereign that can
be identified" [ibid.]. This goes back to the Code of Justinian, that "law is the
will of the sovereign" -- although, with Holmes, in a democracy, sovereignty
lies in the People, not with a Roman Emperor. But this is still not right. Even
democracy does not miraculously turn things that are unjust into things that
are just. As Coolidge says, "Men do not make laws"; and, as shown at right,
Leonard Nelson correctly held that moral obligation depends on no will, either
our own or that of any other. Socrates already argued this in the Euthyphro.
The Pious is loved by the gods because it is pious, not pious because it is
loved by the gods. Justice Holmes and most Constitutional jurisprudence since
does not believe in eternal righteousness; and, indeed, Holmes is regarded as
representing a form of moral skepticism -- very different from that of Hume,
at least in his autonomous form.

Confusions about Hume in Antony Flew
The Polynomic Theory of Value
The Fallacies of Moralism and Moral Aestheticism
Chinese Virtues
Value Theory
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Key Distinctions for Value Theories,
and the Importance of Hume, Note

I am discussing Grassian here because the book is familiar to me, having used
it in my ethics classes for a number of years, and because it seems to be
representative, in ideology, to other contemporary ethics textbooks that I
have examined.
As it happens, Grassian shies away from a complete commitment to feeling
and subjectivism:
Although Hume was right that the ultimate source of our moral principles
resides in our feelings, one should not assume that we must be slaves to our
feelings. One cannot only change one's principles when they conflict
intolerably with one's natural feelings, one can also attempt to adjust one's
feelings when they conflict with one's reasoned preferences. The moral life is
a constant interplay between reason and feeling. [p.24-25]
Unfortunately, on page one of his book, Grassian quotes one of Hume's most
famous statements, "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the
passions..." If Grassian now disagrees with Hume, and frees reason from
Humean slavery, he must explain how reason provides a source of moral
knowledge and certainty independent of feeling. This is precisely what Hume
denied, and Grassian, now inexplicably breaking with Hume, does not bother
to explain how it is that reason, with no identified resources of its own, can
overrule moral sentiment -- what is the moral "matter of fact" that Grassian
has discovered that Hume did not? Having trashed any clarity in his
commitment, Grassian naturally goes on to say that we cannot choose
between objectivism and subjectivism. Indeed. The result is simply
incoherent, or, at best, missing an account of rational moral knowledge. Since
he begins the passage by actually saying that "Hume was right" that the
"ultimate source" of our moral principles is in feeling, he evidently doesn't
realize that an account of rational moral knowledge, of the rational moral
matter of fact, has been rendered necessary.